We are celebrating one year of travel on this road trip from DC to Alaska to Panama! On one hand, it seems like a million years ago that we packed up Gertie and left Maryland and on the other hand, it seems like it was just yesterday that we were posting our US-Canadian trip plan on Facebook. Just as many other things that we planned before we left our last permanent home, much has been altered, changed, and adapted since we started our planning and travel on this epic trip of a lifetime. Of our planned itinerary, we stuck mostly to the plan: we skipped some places we hoped to visit (Taos, for example, due to a major snowstorm forecast for our time there) and added a number of others (King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, for instance). We did travel north of the Arctic Circle but opted to do this in Canada rather than in Alaska due to concerns about the Dalton Highway and truck traffic on that road.
We dispensed with sleeping in a tent, and added our beloved camper, Wolfie, to our gear list. We added a new bike rack but returned to using the one on the roof. We added electricity to our camper life with a generator and an inverter, learned that Netflix, Amazon Prime, cell phones and plans, credit cards and satellite radio function very differently north and south of the lower 48, and have learned to adapt to different forms of lemonade and iced green tea. We’ve met some amazing people and traveled with some of them — Tom and Stacy, Gayle and Bobby, Fritz and Bill, to name just a few — and have had the benefit of the wisdom of many Overlanders who we connected with before and during our trip. We visited with friends and family as we traveled and returned “home” to visit with other friends and family last fall.
We’ve taken thousands of photographs of the hundreds of geological formations, wildlife species, towns, and people along our way and added more than 100 stickers to the windows of Gertie. We have sustained some injuries to Wolfie and Gertie but none have delayed our travels or depleted our bank account significantly. We have spent a sum of money on camping fees and gasoline for the entire year that is less than our rent in DC for 2016. We have seen sunsets and sunrises over many bodies of water and rock formations and experienced 24 hours of sun for weeks on end this past summer. We have seen snow far more frequently than wished (or anticipated) and have experienced smoke from wildfires for the first time in our lives. We have camped in pretty much every environment — cities, parks, roadside rest areas, forests, deserts and more. We’ve learned endless amounts of information about rocks, mountains, tectonic plates, weather, volcanos, earthquakes, wildlife, the US National Park system, western Canadian provinces and territories and the portions of Mexico through which we have traveled so far.
Our experiences in the US and Canada have been extraordinary; our experiences in Mexico, so far, have been extraordinary AND eye opening. For us, Roque’s fluency in Spanish has been invaluable and it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around how Overlanders cope and deal with the myriad things necessary for road travel in this country if they do not speak Spanish. Even for us, adapting to Mexican-Spanish, which we have dubbed MexiEnglish – a different form of Spanglish — has been interesting and comical at times. Consider the word “roofo” that we have seen on stores advertising building materials (el techo is the Spanish word for roof or ceiling), or the term “se renta” on buildings that are available to lease (alquilar is Spanish for “rent”). This is often so confusing that Roque has to let me know when a word is the authentic Spanish word or a form of MexiEnglish so I won’t add vocabulary that will make me the laughing stock of Panama.
Adapting to other things-Mexican has been a bit of a challenge at moments. For example, consider our experience using a Mexican electronic toll pass that we purchased, believing that it would function, more or less, like the several other electronic toll passes we’ve owned in the past. A word of background on Mexican roads — Mexican has a series of toll roads that basically parallel the free (libre) roads. The toll roads are expensive, even by US standards and it’s not uncommon for us to pay several dollars for a segment of road less than 100 miles but they are tope (speed bump) free, generally well paved and can be driven at higher speeds. The local and free roads are, by comparison, replete the above mentioned dreaded potholes, pavement irregularities, topes and more. (The craziness of Mexican drivers is a topic for another day). We have opted to take as many toll roads as possible since the costs are well worth the ease of travel to say nothing of alleviating the wear and tear on our rig. When we purchased the electronic toll pass, we thought having it would save our cash (effectiva) for other essentials like gasoline and food as credit cards are not used in Mexico quite as extensively as in the US and Canada. A great idea that took no less than a week and many attempts to get it to work. First, we had to figure out how to load it with money (requiring stops at banks or stores to reload it with cash as only Mexican credit cards can be used – we think). Then, after going through several (5-6-ish) toll plazas without being able to use it, we learned that it needed to be registered. Roque then registered it through a toll station employee who warned him that even with registration, it might still need to be manually entered at each toll plaza as the pass needs to be separately registered at toll plazas to be recognized there. Oh my gosh. Since it was highly unlikely that we would pass through the same toll plaza more than one time each, it started to look dubious that this pass thingy would be of any use to us. Then, Roque was able to figure out how to register the device on the Mexican website, which required an address (we used that of the hotel which campground we were using in Aguascalientes) and voila, the device FINALLY registered at the toll plaza through which we traveled en route to Zacatecas.
Don’t get us wrong: there are a number of things that we have encountered here in Mexico that we think are really nice improvements over things we ever experienced in the US. Kisoks in every store that allow for the recharging of sim cards and payment of accounts. The purchase of cell data by the gig, untethered to costly telecommunication plans. Guard posts in shopping centers. Handbag racks next to tables in restaurants. Sloping escalators that allow shopping carts AND people to travel up and down together. Pharmacies that allow for the purchase of most medications without a prescription. And much more. And other things that we have loved that don’t fall neatly into any particular category: amazing street food that is healthy and tasty and cheap, even by local standards; warm, friendly and joyful people in every place; incredible architecture dating to the 16th and 17th centuries when the US was barely a “discovery,” fabulous tequila everywhere. We have loved seeing the Mexicans in down jackets, ear muffs, scarves and gloves here in Zacatecas when we are wearing shorts and the temperatures are in the 60’s. We have stared open-mouthed watching a father ride a bicycle holding his toddler in his right arm as he pedaled along. We have admired and photographed many beautiful doors and buildings that have no match in the US and that demonstrate a richness of history and love of beauty that is prevalent everywhere we have traveled in Mexico.
Zacatecas on Christmas Eve
It’s been a year on the road, 50,000+ miles traveled, and a million memories etched forever in our brains and our hearts. We look forward to the coming year and the experiences we have ahead as we complete the journey to Panama. Here’s wishing for a safe and memorable 2018 for our continued travels and wishes to you for a 2018 that is everything you want and need.
It seems that most Pan American Highway overlanders officially “count” the start of their trip when they cross from the US into Mexico – likely, there are a number of reasons why this is the case, among which are the costs of US/Canadian travel and visa restrictions. Whatever the reasons, we, too, felt that the Pan American part of our trip started when we crossed the border into Tecate, Baja California at the end of November.
Our original plan called for us to cross into Mexico from San Diego and travel through Baja before crossing by ferry to the mainland. We chose this route because we wanted to visit Baja and camp on beaches on both sides – the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez – as well as due to general concerns about safety. There are so many US and Canadian snowbirds and others who visit Baja, we thought that entering through Tecate into Baja would be sort of “Mexico-light” or “Mexico 1.0.” And because most of the areas of safety concern are supposedly the border areas from Texas and Arizona, we thought that Baja would be a safer place to cross. While we won’t know what we would have experienced had we chosen a different route, the one we took proved to be what we hoped it might be – easy, safe and definitely a “Mexico-light” kind of experience.
We also had a hunch that once we crossed into Mexico, we would begin to meet other Pan Am Highway travelers (we will call them the Travelers from this point forward). No doubt that Travelers were hiding in plain sight in the US and Canada so we met relatively few of them amidst the very large number of North American RVers we saw in every place we visited. Pan Am travelers are often traveling in rigs that are much different than North American RV-type vehicles: many are in modified vans or trucks and still others are in European camper vans (caravans) that are distinctively different than North American RVs – usually smaller and more rugged and/or sleek in terms of design. There are other identifying characteristics of a rig headed for Panama or Argentina such as roof tents, rigs loaded with gear inside and out, gas and water canisters mounted on the rigs, etc. It also helped when we spied a European license plate or a URL emblazoned across a rig with a foreign country domain name.
Here are some examples of what an Overlander’s rig might look like:
Or like this:
If you see one of these, get outta the way (or ask for a tour inside)!
When we spot such a rig, we invariably assume that these travelers are headed for Panama or Ushuaia, Argentina. On multiple occasions, we have pounced on and started peppering them with questions. What we learned from these initial conversations is that there are a number of Europeans who ship their rigs to North America because the cost of shipping can be absorbed over several months of travel when compared with the expense of hotel costs in the US and Canada. We also learned that while not all of these Euro campers were headed for Panama or Argentina, a large number of them intend to do some portion of it, at least until their money or time runs out.
Once we hit Mexico, however, it seemed that the majority of campers we’ve met in Baja campgrounds are headed for some destination along the Pan Am. And on Baja, where there is really just one highway and a series of towns with just a few campground options, we started to encounter some of the same travelers over and over again, in a leap frog kind of way: one day, we might be a day behind someone else and then we would be riding bikes in town and we would literally bump into someone we met 2 towns ago. Our list of Baja friends included Diana and Santiago from Brazil/US and Columbia, Fritz (Austria), Mike (Montana) and Bill (Scotland), Josie and Rob (the Netherlands), Jerry and Bonnie (British Columbia), Ben (Switzerland) and Rachel (US/Switzerland) and others. All had different destinations, different rigs and different stories. We enjoyed them all.
The beauty of this gift of nearly endless encounters was the joy of arriving in a place and seeing a friendly face, often at a particularly fortuitous moment. One such case was after we left the town of Todos Santos, a small artsy community about an hour and a half north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific side of Baja, and while looking for a possible beach camping location, we became stuck in the sand in an arroyo. Folks walking along the beach approached with offers of help (one couple were camping with us in Todos Santos, as it happened) and together, we unhooked the truck from Wolfie, extracted first the truck and then camper from the sand, and high-tailed it out of the arroyo before the high tide arrived. (Turned out that the debris showing the tide line was left over from the Super Moon’s high tide earlier that week and we weren’t in jeopardy of a floating Wolfie after all.) While in the middle of attempts at extricating the rig from the sand, we looked up and saw Fritz and Bill, who happened to arrive at the very same location at the exact right moment in time. We celebrated the liberation of Gertie and Wolfie with beers and a shared meal later that evening, grateful for our rig’s safety and the generosity of our friends’ help.
Earlier during our time in Baja, just as we entered the town of Santa Rosalia, we had a similar gift of an encounter with wonderful people when one of Wolfie’s leaf springs broke, causing the trailer to collapse onto the axle and prevented further movement. A local man, whose name we never knew, stopped and jumped into action, sliding beneath Wolfie, working alongside Roque, as both tried to both diagnose the problem. By the time additional help arrived (we never discovered who called the Aguilar brothers to help with repairing Wolfie), our unnamed local man had dirtied his clothes, sustained a minor injury to his hand, and worked tirelessly next to Roque for more than an hour by the time that a temporary solution was devised to allow us to pull Wolfie to the shop for repair. While we gave him money to show our gratitude for his help, we know that when he stopped to help, being paid was not his motivation.
As we near the first anniversary of our time on the road, the gift of endless encounters with kind and lovely people, everywhere we’ve visited, has enriched our experiences, enhanced our understanding of the world, and provided us moments of social interaction and a sense of community that our solitary kind of travel often lacks. And in this time when the US media, social and otherwise, portrays the US as a place of great division, anger, and more, we can share that this is not what we have experienced along the road, whether in the US, Canada or Mexico. We have felt safe. And welcome. And accepted.
And for this and more, we are grateful.
Wishing all of you happiness and joy during this season of celebration.
Our route through Baja to the Mainland, as of today:
(Or, given the timing of this post and today’s holiday, Happy Thanksgiving to all!)
Initial Camping Kitchen Set-Up
You will recall that when we left Maryland on December 26, 2016 on this road trip, we were tent camping. At the time, we were carrying a fairly sophisticated arrangement of camping “rooms” – a traditional dome tent for sleeping, a screen tent for our outdoor living area and tarps to frame and shield our outdoor kitchen, usually “built” around a park-supplied picnic table. We had long before dispensed with the traditional Coleman-type 2 burner camp stove and had upgraded to a more powerful 2 burner Mr. Heater Basecamp camp stove which is rated at 15,000 BTU per burner.
In addition to the camp stove, based upon an ingenious idea obtained from Pinterest, our camp kitchen was housed in a Stanley Tool Fatmax rolling toolbox. Within it were utensils, foil, baggies and plastic wrap, spices, cutlery and silverware, pots and dishes alongside our dishwashing and drying necessaries. We also had one large bear-proof box (creatively named the “bear box”) that housed other kitchen items such as charcoal and fire starter, larger pots, cutting boards, pantry items, etc. We were traveling with a 63 quart ARB 12-volt refrigerator which we powered using the cigarette lighter adapter while driving and our 100 watt solar panel and Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar “generator” while stationary.
We brought as many spices, sauces and pantry ingredients as we could fit into the Kitchen and Bear Box because we wanted to continue to cook and eat as we did in our brick-and-mortar home. While it is not completely clear how other overlanders cook and eat on the road –- whether they stick to basics or bring a little of home with them – we thought that since we planned to be on the road for well over a year, we wanted to eat the same (or similar) broad range of foods that we ate before we left on the trip. This included cooking with flavors from the Mediterranean, Asia, India and elsewhere.
This all worked pretty well. It was cumbersome but workable. We packed an amazingly large amount of sauces, condiments, spices and pantry items as well as kitchen utensils, including an electric coffee/spice grinder and a small electric chopper/food processor (in addition to a manual coffee grinder). We scaled down to several pots and pans – a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, cast iron plancha (grill/griddle combo) and small pot with lid.
Before we left on the trip, we added frequently used recipes to the Pepperplate app for easy access along the road. Pepperplate is a website/app that allows users to upload recipes (user generated or obtained from other websites) and create menus, from which shopping lists can be generated and more. It’s a powerful and handy app for anyone who enjoys cooking, recipe collecting and entertaining (the shopping list feature is worth its weight in gold as it aggregates ingredients — so handy for holiday meal preparations!).
Life After Wolfie
When we acquired Wolfie, we moved our kitchen from the Kitchen and Bear Box inside. Wolfie’s kitchen has a 2 burner propane stove, a small sink, a microwave and a small fridge that runs on propane or electric. Of course, the microwave works only when we have electricity. (More on electricity below). We also have a small counter space next to the sink and a couple of storage areas above, below and next to the sink/stove areas.
Roque very cleverly used one of our 3 door plastic “dressers” (previously used for clothes when we were tent camping) inside one of Wolfie’s storage cabinets which now houses spices, pantry items, some canned goods and sauces. A $2 tin bucket from Michaels’ houses our most frequently used utensils – wooden spoons, spatulas, whisk, knives and cutting boards have a place alongside Wolfie’s 2-burner stove. We house our pots and pans under the sink with our dishes (plastic and paper) and our additional pantry items are in a cabinet or under the benches at the dinette (together with all sorts of other stuff). Prep space in Wolfie is extremely limited now that we are using our counter space for a dish drain so most of our food prep is done on a cutting board placed on the sink.
Despite the compact space we live within, we have added a couple of kitchen gadgets along the trip including a dehydrator for making jerky (ours is better, more healthy and less expensive than from the store), a small electric drip coffee maker (the French press uses too much water to clean when we are wild camping), dish drainer and a couple of extra cups for when we have “company” but otherwise we are using the same equipment as when we were in a tent. The Stanley Fatmax tool box was returned to its originally intended function as a tool box and the bear box is being used for hoses and Wolfie-related items. Wolfie’s fridge added a tiny freezer that allows for some ice and additional fridge space.
Note on Electricity:
Electricity for us is a bit like other technology in that it’s a work in progress kind of thing . . . For those familiar with RVing, you know that RVs have a “house” battery (usually some form of 12 volt car or marine battery) that charges when you are driving and that runs some of the RV’s essential functions such as lights, water pump, USB power outlets (for newer models), RV fridge, hot water heater, kitchen and bathroom fan and perhaps a little more. The battery does not supply sufficient power to run AC, microwave, or “regular” power outlets. You can add batteries to the RV battery bank but that will only extend the amount of time you can run essential functions without recharging UNLESS you also add a power inverter that will “convert” (which is really inverting) 12 volts power into AC power to run small appliances such as drip coffee makers. Many modern RVs are sold with solar connections that allow for solar panels to connect into the RV electrical system and then recharges the battery when the RV is stationary and not hooked to electricity.
In order to run a powered appliance, you need either an inverter (which simply converts stored power from DC to AC) or a generator, which actually creates usable electricity for power-hungry functions like the microwave or air conditioning.
Many in RVs never sweat any of this because larger RVs usually come with generators built into the rig, drawing gasoline directly from the gas tank of the rig, or they just rely on campground-supplied power. It’s great to have power supplied at a campsite but camping only in campgrounds supplying power limits you to certain kinds of camping.
Our Goal Zero solar “generator” is really just a beautifully packaged battery with an inverter attached . . . The model we bought was the Yeti 400 and the “400” denotes the watts that are “generated” by the inverter. Our Goal Zero produces enough power to power our ARB fridge and to recharge our phones and tablets. It can also be used for our small coffee grinder or tiny food chopper but that is about its limits.
After we wild camped a few times, we realized that there were times when we were going to want more power so that we could recharge the house battery, or we could run the coffee maker or we could run the air conditioner. For these needs, we knew we needed a generator, which we decided to purchase while on the road to Alaska, ordered online for store pick up in Anchorage.
We opted to purchase a Champion generator that can produce sufficient watts to run the air conditioning in Wolfie because it seemed to make little sense to have a generator that supplied some but not all of our needs. We believed, as well, that the generator might come in handy for future non-RV applications and we could, therefore, justify the purchase for several reasons. The one we bought works well but it is quite loud – the much quieter Honda generators are extremely costly so while we would have loved less noise, we couldn’t justify the additional cost.
To counter the generator noise issue, we later decided to add a 1500 watt power inverter into our set up. The inverter is silent because it is not generating electricity but just inverting power from 12 volt to AC. It is connected to Wolfie’s house battery (which is now chained to an additional AGM marine battery that we were using with the Goal Zero in Gertie) and allows us to run an extension cord to the coffee maker or coffee grinder in the morning without starting up the generator.
Most Pan American Highway overlanders do not appear to be traveling in any sort of RV and are likely doing just fine with a solar panel and battery plus some type of inverter. Most RVers are likely fully self sufficient with factory-supplied generators connected to the RV’s electrical system and gas supply. We are kind of in between. The sort of “hit and miss”-learning by experience that has emerged over our time on the road has probably resulted in a hodgepodge of solutions that might make others howl with laughter but it seems, finally, to be working for us.
Our Eating Repertoire
Our breakfasts and lunches are simple affairs – most of our thought and energy go into planning and making our dinners. On average, we will cook 6 out of 7 dinners – or 20 out of 21 weekly meals. They are also mostly simple affairs consisting of a grilled source of protein and a vegetable or salad or a fruit. Keeping fresh veggies and fruits around is a challenge – they take up a LOT of refrigerator space and spoil easily so often we have one or the other with dinner but rarely both. Roque is a master at grilling, whether over gas, charcoal or firewood and we have enjoyed many meals of grilled whole fish, steaks, racks of lamb, pork of all sorts and more. Grilling is not always possible, particularly when parks restrict fires and charcoal grills and grilling over a propane heated, cast iron plancha does not always produce excellent results. So, when we are not grilling, we have enjoyed pan seared Pacific halibut, pan seared steaks, freshly shucked local oysters and more. We have learned how to “bake” mini pizzas in the Dutch oven, made stews, prepared curries, scrambled eggs, blackened salmon, stir-fried Asian meals, “doctored” ramen packets with veggies, pork belly and aromatics, and created chicken lettuce wraps just like when we lived in DC. On Passover, we prepared a small sedar, complete with gefilte fish (store bought), hard-boiled eggs, matzo and homemade matzo ball soup. We have learned that much is possible with a bit of thought and a healthy dose of creativity. Still, we have also de-emphasized meal prep over the course of this trip largely because the therapeutic value of cooking was significantly reduced after retirement and because we just didn’t feel the urge to spend a lot of time in the kitchen/fire pit when there was so much other stuff to do.
Our Shopping Regimen
A friend asked us about our shopping routine one day and the question stopped me in my tracks: what WAS our shopping routine? Earlier in our trip, we learned from shopping trips to grocery “stores” in Terlingua, Texas (on the western edge of Big Bend National Park) and in Springdale, UT (on the western edge of Zion National Park) that while there is often some source of grocery items, the selection and cost for “our” staples made it essential that we ensure these items were stockpiled, when possible.
After passing through tiny towns with little more than convenience stores within gas stations as a source of procuring grocery items, we learned to take mental stock of “meals” on hand – eggs and cans of salmon and tuna as well as PB&J were always in our pantry. After spending substantial time in Canada, we learned that sugar-free beverages were scarce and that we had to make adjustments when it came to our preferred non-alcoholic drinks. (Note: alcoholic beverages in Canada are HIGHLY taxed and much more expensive than in the US – we learned to stock up on liquor in Alaska before heading back through Canada). In short, as long as we could count on at least 2 meals within our pantry and fridge, we knew we wouldn’t go hungry.
When in new towns, one of our great pleasures is to visit new grocery stores. Within the US, grocery store chains are often more familiar than not and we learned that our store courtesy card/phone numbers worked in stores where we had NEVER shopped before, making clear that some chains are linked whether we are aware of this or not. For example, Albertson’s, which we have visited throughout the western US, is a chain related to Safeway in some manner.
In short, we shop when necessary – when we are out of essentials or when we have “nothing to eat.” This pattern is not unlike how we shopped when we resided in a brick-and-mortar home – we shopped nearly daily for dinner items and bought our staples at the same time. While we cannot, as a general rule, purchase Costco-sized packages, we buy our racks of lamb only at Costco and have made many batches of curried chicken salad from the rotisserie chickens we buy at warehouse clubs.
What We Crave
Despite our expansive cooking repertoire, broad palate and willingness to eat what the locals eat, there are things we don’t get to eat often enough to fulfill our inner (eating) souls. Among these things are good sushi. Bagels. Dim sum. Good fried chicken. Chopped liver. Anything braised. And a delicious piece of cake or pastry. The take-away is that it is worth waiting for the right place (or kinda-right place) before trying to satisfy the craving, even if it means waiting 6 months for sushi. Or learn how to make it yourself. (Ask Roque about shucking Pacific oysters – a topic for another day.)
Cooking in Mexico
Since we just arrived in Mexico, it is not clear how our eating and cooking will change. The first several days felt like we were on vacation and we succumbed to the temptation to eat out – one late lunch at a beautiful vineyard, El Cielo, in the Valle de Guadeloupe, an early lunch of tostadas on the street at La Guerrerense, and a fabulous early dinner at Manzanilla in Ensenada. The meals were each memorable and, frankly, better than most of the restaurant meals we’ve eaten along this trip. They were also, predictably, much less expensive than most of the meals that we have eaten (in or out) over the past year of travel and so, the dilemma, both in terms of pocketbook and waistline, for us will be in finding some balance.
We have already learned, from visits to local markets and grocery stores, that we will not be without good (and familiar) food, however, meat is butchered differently in Mexico than in the US and the broad selection of cuts and types (lamb has been absent from all of the stores we have visited including Costco and Sam’s Club) may limit what we purchase until we become more familiar and, perhaps, more adventurous. It is exciting to find huge bins of different dried chilies, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, and ones that we recognize but do not know how to cut or prepare (prickly pear being among them). And the spices! We replenished our ground cumin the other day with a 40 gram packet that cost under $1; the same was true for aji molido (garlic powder).
Our favorite beverages are not available in any store so we will need to make adjustments but we are flexible and are sure we will adapt. And when we are able, we look forward to cooking classes and more research on how to use some of the local ingredients and, perhaps, will find the courage to learn to cook things we love to eat but have never cooked. Pulpo anyone?
In case you are interested, here is a list of what we have and try to keep on hand:
Salt, white pepper, black pepper (whole and ground), garlic powder, onion powder, cumin (whole and ground), Montreal steak seasoning, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, mustard powder, Old Bay, curry powder, garam masala, sumac, ras el hanout, ginger powder, cinnamon sticks, ground cinnamon, whole nutmeg, allspice (whole and ground), cayenne, bay leaves, fennel seeds, and celery seeds.
Sauces and Pantry Items
Oil (canola and extra virgin olive oil), soy sauce, vinegar (champagne and balsamic) chicken and beef bouillon, Tabasco and 2 other hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, Asian fish sauce, Chinese rice wine, hoisin, flour, white and brown sugar, splenda, dried whole milk, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, rice, canned sardines, canned tuna, canned anchovies, canned salmon, Rotel, peanut butter, maple syrup, mustard, ketchup, mayo, grape jam, Naomi Benzil’s mango chutney and peach mango honey, fresh garlic, minced ginger, lemons, limes, tomato paste (in a tube), panko, bread crumbs, various dried beans and legumes and some other items that we’ve likely overlooked.
It has been about 2 months since we last wrote a blog post and it hardly seems possible that it has been that long . . . We arrived back in the lower 48 as of that writing and here we are, two months later, approaching the last couple of months in the US before we cross the US-Mexico border. Hard to believe that just about Thanksgiving time, we will be crossing the border for the next phase of this road trip.
At the moment, we are “camped” in downtown La Vegas at a “campground” at the Main Street Station Casino/Brewery/Hotel which is nothing more than a parking lot with full hook ups. It is everything we need and more, especially when you see the amazing updated, modern and impeccably clean bathrooms. Yes, there is nearby road noise and yes, there are few trees but we are in the middle of downtown Las Vegas and the location (and cost) cannot be beat. Past visits to Las Vegas left us less-than-enthusiastic about returning but we needed a place where we could service Wolfie as well as a place from which we could fly to the east coast for a trip to visit friends and family and to celebrate a milestone birthday. It also goes to prove that earlier impressions can change in subsequent visits – this time around, we have found a lot to like about Las Vegas, including the ever-present sunshine and the border of gorgeous mountains that fringe the city. As it happens, having the resources of a city and the time to just stay put for a while has also allowed for a lot of catching up on a variety of things, including another installation of this blog.
While making plans with friends back east, more than one expressed excitement about seeing us and learning all that we have learned about life along the road so far. In our day to day life, neither of us regularly discuss subjects such as the life lessons learned along this road trip but these comments caused us to consider what we might share with friends when we return East. We wish we could make erudite lists of our lessons learned but neither of us feel qualified to do so. Perhaps it is because when you are in the middle of something, it is more difficult to see it clearly. It will be interesting to see if anyone back “home” notices changes in us that, perhaps, we don’t see in ourselves. With time, we think that the lessons learned from the trip will make themselves known.
Notwithstanding the lack of a coherent life lesson list, we have reflected often on the magnitude of this undertaking. Because Gertie’s truck cap windows are nearly completely obscured with stickers from parks and other sites we’ve visited, we are regularly questioned when, for instance, we stop for gas and we launch into the 30-second elevator speech about our trip. We have applied the last state sticker to our map of the United States before we cross into Mexico and we have visited all but one of the national parks on our list before we leave the US. We figure that we will be crossing the border to Mexico just about Thanksgiving and as this date approaches, we thought that it was a good time for a trip recap.
As we approach the Mexican border, we have sought out and read a number of blogs from other travelers on the Pan American highway. From these, it seems that we are pretty much ready – ready for this next phase of the journey, ready for new adventures and ready in terms of trip gear, paperwork and other preparations. By now, we are used to many of the kinds of potential obstacles we may face: bad roads, slow going, little or no cell or wifi signals, lots of bugs, inaccurate mapping and more. In other words, we’ve gotten pretty used to looking at each other, shrugging and saying “It’s good practice for Mexico and Central America” and just continuing.
Some (mostly useless) Trip Stats
The following is a mostly-accurate account of some trip stats and some mullings from along the way –
Time on the Road
80% of a year
Daily average: 126 miles (remember that this includes local driving once we arrive at a stop)
Approximately 3000 gallons of gasoline used
Approximately 170 fuel stops
Places Visited (on this trip only)
Approximately 140 overnight stops, ranging from a single night to a week in one location
Approximately 35 national parks plus additional national monuments/recreation areas/national seashores/forests and other federally protected lands
Approximately 40 state and local public campgrounds
Approximately 15 wild camping locations
Number of nights spent in accommodations OTHER than Wolfie: 4 (two in a hotel during a snow storm and two with friends Nia and Len while in Lake Tahoe)
Approximate average nightly cost for campsite: $22.88
Major towns and cities visited: Asheville, Charleston, Savannah, Louisville, Miami/South Florida, Jacksonville, Pensacola, New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Tucson, Phoenix, Denver, Calgary, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Reno, Stockton, Fresno, Las Vegas
Some Favorite Things
Along our trip, we have met so many people who claim a “favorite” park. Yosemite rises to nearly everyone’s list. Others include Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and all of the southern Utah national parks. Variables such as weather, traffic and crowds, to name a few, can influence an experience. Comparisons of places on a scale as large as the one we’ve traveled is an apples-to-oranges thing and any mental list we might have is a constantly changing one, as we see and visit new places. There have been some standouts to us, however: (subject to change):
US and Canadian National Parks
Big Bend National Park – Texas
Zion National Park – Utah
North Cascades National Park – Washington
Banff/Jasper/Yoho/Kootenay – Alberta, Canada
Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks – Sierra Nevada region, California
Favorite Night Sky Locations
Death Valley National Park
Everglades National Park
Kodachrome State Park (Utah)
Some favorite towns
Delray Beach, FL
Nearly ALL grocery (including Target) and warehouse clubs (Costco and Sam’s Club) outside of the MD/DC/VA area sell not only beer and wine but also liquor as well
Discourteous drivers exist in every state
Costco hot dogs taste the same everywhere; the buns, however, are different from location to location
Nearly every public camping website leaves essential questions unanswered and make it more difficult than necessary to book campsites
National parks are amazingly distinct and even when they are virtually next door to another national park, there are stunning differences that make each worthy of selection
We have not perceived any divisiveness anywhere in the US and yet we believe that this country is very divided. We cannot completely explain this disconnect
Some Preliminary Thoughts on Lessons Learned (so far)
We still enjoy our visits to cities for our dose of energy, people-watching and urban services, however, the longer we are on the road, the less we believe that we will end up living in one long term. Smaller cities/larger towns have become more appealing to us because they have necessary conveniences but allow for the building of relationships and a sense of community.
We have been able to maintain a similar lifestyle as the one we enjoyed before the road trip, despite an income that is between 1/3 – ¼ of our prior income (a topic for another blog post) in part because we have used this trip as a way to ease into our new income and a slower lifestyle
As a couple, we have experienced some bumps along the road but still enjoy spending 24/7 with each other and have learned a new language and new skills to help keep our conversations fresh, activities exciting and togetherness non-stifling. (Hint: laughter is key!)
Beautiful Lake Tahoe
Roque and me with Len at Lake Tahoe
Ruthann, Bobby, Len, Nia, Roque and me at our campsite dinner party
It’s been 7 months and 27,000 miles since we left Maryland on December 26, 2016. This post was started in Alaska, continued in Canada and re-started in Alaska again and finalized in the Yakima, Washington area when we were able to locate and connect to wifi strong enough to upload the blog post plus photos. In other words, this long overdue post is slightly long in the tooth as well as overdue . . . so much so that we nearly scrapped it for an updated one. Despite the delay in posting and despite whatever new ideas are floating in our heads now that we have returned to the lower 48, we share this with you because, among other things, it accurately reflects our state of mind when we wrote it and a lot has happened since we last wrote.
At the end of May, when we last posted, we crossed into Canada from Montana. Since crossing the border, we traveled through Canadian National Parks in Alberta, across northwestern Canada and through parts of British Columbia and the Yukon Territories. We drove north past the Arctic Circle to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories: Inuvik is the most northern Canadian city that can be reached during the summer (in the winter, one can drive farther north on ice roads, thankfully not present when we arrived on June 20). When we returned from Inuvik, we headed into Alaska after crossing the Yukon River by ferry at Dawson City, YT.
While north of the border to the lower 48, we traveled every major highway in Alaska, returned back into Canada, back again into southeastern Alaska and dead-ended at Skagway. From there, we took advantage of touring the Inside Passage on the Alaskan Maritime Highway (the public ferry system) to Juneau and then further south to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, with stops in Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan. After our ferry trip, we will continue by road again through British Columbia into the Okanagan Valley to visit family and then end our time in Canada in the Vancouver area before we re-enter the lower 48.
During our summer north of the US-Canadian border, we visited Calgary, Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks in Canada and Denali and Klondike in Alaska, Lakes Louise, Morraine and Emerald, Grand Cache and Grand Prairie, Alberta; we entered the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia and passed through Ft. St. John and Ft. Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, and Dawson City before entering Alaska near the town of Chicken. In addition to Chicken, we visited Alaskan towns and cities named Tok, Delta Junction, Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna, Palmer and Wasilla, Seward, Sterling, Cooper Landing, Kenai, Soldatna, Homer, Ninilchik, Anchorage, and Valdez. We traveled highways referred to by name rather than number: the Alaska, the Klondike, The Top of the World, the Parks, the Richardson, the Glenn, the Dempster.
We learned that satellite radio (and TV presumably) doesn’t work in areas near and north of the Arctic Circle (something about pointing the satellite into the ground), and that it is exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting) to have 18-24 hours of light. We also learned that unless you catch your own salmon or halibut, there is pretty much no chance of finding inexpensive fish to buy in Alaska. Based on recommendations made by Alaskans, we bought halibut and Copper River sockeye salmon at Costco, of all places. Both were expensive and unbelievably delicious as were the incredibly large, firm and briny Alaskan oysters and sweet, meaty king crab legs. We dined on elk, wild boar, bison and reindeer meat and prepared our own elk osso busso, and grilled fish and lamb, on Roque-designed stone-rimmed fire pits next to riverbeds where we wild camped.
During these travels, we have seen more beauty that we would have thought possible and enough to sustain us for years to come. We have spied dozens of bear – grizzly and black — elk, caribou, moose, eagles, ptarmigan, Dall sheep, big horned sheep, mountain goats, wolf, coyote, mule deer, salmon and sea lions. We’ve learned how to convert gasoline from liters to gallons and then from Canadian to US dollars. We have driven through vastly different eco systems, have seen the highest mountain in North America, and have gazed upon glacial lakes and rivers in rainbow hues from emerald to turquoise to aquamarine. We’ve awakened to bright sunlight at 2 am and taken to the road in the middle of the night on several occasions. We’ve driven a thousand miles on gravel roads through Arctic tundra and hundreds of miles on roads peppered with frost heaves and washouts due to avalanches and rock slides. We’ve seen mountains frosted with snow and glaciers in July and shrouded with clouds even at midday. It’s been a feat of endurance that was worth every kilometer driven and gallon of gas consumed.
As if this was not enough, we added new friends, Tom and Stacie, who we met in Banff, to our rich lives, and reconnected with full-time RVers, Gayle and Bobby, who we met back at Big Bend National Park in March. We joined up with Tom and Stacie in Dawson Creek, BC and traveled the Alaska Highway together until Whitehorse, Yukon Territories when we parted paths: our travels took us on the Klondike Highway north to Dawson City and Inuvik and they traveled west on the Alaska Highway toward Alaska. During our hundreds of miles together, we tried dry-camping (aka wild camping, dispersed camping, boondocking, free camping), our courage buoyed by our belief that we had safety-in-numbers. We shared meals from time to time and happy hour pretty much every day we traveled together. We rejoined them in Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage and enjoyed their company, their senses of humor, and their joy of life and we all enjoyed our time together as well as the stories of our times apart. We know we will stay in touch and we hope to see them again someday– whether along this trip, in Panama or in Florida, where they will return, to greet their newest grandchild, in November.
Alaska also allowed us to meet up again with Gayle and Bobby who we met by chance while in Big Bend National Park. There, Gayle gave us a great book about camping in Alaska that became our camping “bible” for much of Canada and Alaska. We discovered that we expected to be in Denali at the same time and pledged to meet up again. Our meals with them in Fairbanks were filled with laughter and animated conversation and, we hope, not our last times meeting up with them.
We met other people as well at nearly every campground or stop and shared travel stories and recommendations. We spoke to retail clerks, museum docents, fellow campers and others about how they grew up or ended up in Inuvik/Pelly Crossing/Denali/Soldatna/Dawson City. We tried to learn more about the folks who opt to live in these sparsely populated, distant, bitter-cold-in-winter, sometimes isolated, winter-dark places and heard that they are drawn to these areas because of the peace, the beauty, the clearness of the water and air and the amazing summers which long, long days of clear, warm temperatures and endless outdoors opportunities offset the dark and cold days of winter.
The Power of Resiliency
Looking back at the past couple of months, it feels like a thousand years has passed since we wrote our last BootsandCoffee.com post at the end of May. That post, as many before it, described some of our earlier struggles as we took to the road: living in a teeny space, living without certain creature comforts, the challenges of finding cell, wifi and TV signals, locating foods to which we had become accustomed, not having the ability to make sustained connections with other people and more. There were always beautiful things that helped balance the unsettled parts of us but the first several months of this trip definitely presented us with many logistical and emotional challenges.
Then, the light switched on and our journey changed from a moment-by-moment experience to a place of soul-deep contentment. Perhaps reflection over time will disclose why this transformation happened but for now, we have only working theories. For now, it seems that it is simply because we have settled into our new life and it has become, like broken-in hiking boots, comfortable.
Not all travel is for “vacation” – ask people who travel as part of their work – and not all travel, even for vacation is enjoyable. For many, the actual travel is the least enjoyable part of going on vacation and no matter how wonderful vacation can be, nearly everyone returns home following vacation with a sigh of relief when sinking into one’s own bed or favorite chair. It took us quite a while to adjust to the concept that this trip was not really a vacation and perhaps even longer to adjust to the concept that there would not be a return to our beloved waterbed or favorite chairs.
That said, on this trip, the journey has been more important than the destination. The sights and experiences have been spectacular but more than those are the slowly evolving internal shifts. We have traded flickering campfires for flickering TV screens and have adjusted to our phones as paperweights in many areas. We remain interested in current events but are no longer glued to the news to start and end our days. We have developed connections with people that are focused more on core values than politics and issues. We have found solace in the quiet, joy in each others’ company, amazement in the things we are learning, and appreciation for small things like the freshness of the air, clarity of the water, or a hot shower that does not required conserving water.
We still love reaching a town large enough to host a decent grocery store or finding that we have a cell signal. We still prefer smooth pavement to washboard roads. And while the lack of humidity for the last several months has been heavenly, we look forward to weather warm enough to allow us to wear shorts and sandals again.
We met a woman known as Klondike Sarah at the Yukon Territories Congdon Creek Campground. Sarah, who we estimate to be in her early 40’s, is from Great Britain, and now lives in Dawson City and works for the Yukon Territories Park system. While watching contractors complete an electric fence enclosure for tent campers (to protect them from bears), we learned that she lives in a 260 square foot cabin with no indoor plumbing and an extension cord for her electricity. Before she arrived in the Yukon, she did not consider herself particularly outdoorsy and yet she has chosen this way of life. When asked why, she replied “How many people can work 4 months a year and take 8 off?”
Sarah was not the only person we met who chooses to live with an outhouse and no indoor plumbing. The wife in a couple of Yukoners that we met at the Lliard Hot Springs told me she much prefers her outhouse to her inside bathroom because she doesn’t have to clean it. A Goddard Space Center retiree from Deale, Maryland, and her NASA rocket scientist (ret.) husband, who helped us in a shop outside Denali National Park, also chooses to live in a cabin with “his and her outhouses” and an outdoor shower only. In Alaska, we heard references to “subsistence lifestyle” which we came to learn meant those who eat only on what they trap, hunt or catch; others live differently but still fish and freeze hundreds of pounds of salmon each year to keep them going through the winter.
These lifestyles are not ones that we would choose to live but the longer we are on the road, the more we can relate to living with less. One of Roque’s friends recently asked him how he deals with the quiet time. He answered that the quiet is exhilarating and calming and soothing to the soul. This, too, has been an evolution, not unlike the period of transition that occurs when one moves from one house to the next, even in the same city, and has to learn the new routes, new shortcuts, new places to buy food and to repair shoes. I have long believed that it takes quite a bit of time for a place to start to really feel like home. Why would we think differently about life on the road?
I believe that part of what unsettled me at the beginning of this journey was the unknown in front of us. I had so many questions: where would we stay? Could we afford it? Would there be a campground vacancy and if not, what next? What would we do if we didn’t have Google Maps to help navigate or internet for email, social media and news? Would there be a grocery store where we could purchase food while in between national parks/towns/cities? How would we refill prescriptions/cut hair/fill gas tanks along our travels? Would we make it to various places “on time?” How would we be treated along our travels?
With 7 months, 27,000+ miles, 2 countries, 4 time zones and hundreds of new experiences under our belts, we have developed the confidence, the courage and more of an easy-going nature that has grown from experiencing a lot of things that might otherwise have taken the wind from our sails. We’ve had flat tires and broken windows; we’ve had to carry extra gas just to make it to the next fuel stop. We’ve visited towns without grocery stores (and not starved) and stopped for the night where we were the only people in sight. Learning that you can trust yourself, your gear, skills and knowledge is powerful. And it fortifies us for the months ahead.
We wrote this post from Montana, our last US state before we crossed the border into Canada for the long drive through Canada to Alaska. We crossed the border just to the northeast of Glacier National Park into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. The two parks form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and it was amazing to sit in our campground at Waterton Townsite and face the back of the mountains that framed the Canadian border from the US side. Glacier is dramatic and the middle portion of the famous Going to the Sun Road within the park remained closed, since it is still being plowed out from the 30’ – 60’ (yes, feet) of snow that has fallen or drifted or avalanched (if that is a word) during this past winter. Fascinating photos of the plowing can be seen here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/glaciernps/sets/72157682348882366 and older YouTube videos show just how difficult an undertaking the plowing can be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-9l1PojA6Q.
Waterton Lakes National Park is also a beautiful park and there is a small village within the park called Waterton, complete with campgrounds, a few shops, restaurants and more. The glacial water in Waterton Lake and in the rivers and creeks within the park are stunningly lovely as is its Red Rock Canyon. Waterton provided us with up close views of mule deer and big horned sheep grazing within our campground, as well as a black bear (the photo below shows that not all black bears have black fur) and a moose that galloped away before we could take its photo.
As of this posting, we are happily sited at Bow Rivers Edge Campground in Cochrane, Alberta, on the outskirts of Calgary, where we will spend the next several days before traveling to Banff and Jasper National Parks before heading to Edmonton. From Edmonton, it will be about a 2-day journey to travel to Dawson Creek, the official beginning of the Alaska Highway (also referred to as the ALCAN Highway). With Wolfie in tow, we typically try to limit our driving days to 4 hours of driving per day because towing Wolfie, particularly when it is windy (a near constant condition here so far) is more difficult than when driving without her. We are figuring on a couple of weeks on the Alaska Highway and have allowed plenty of time to travel, sight see, and for detours between here and Alaska. The miles between here and Alaska seemed like a lot when we first considered this trip but after 20,000 on the road so far, that number is much less daunting now.
When we started to think about this blog post, we were in western South Dakota. We arrived there believing that we would spend 2-3 days in the area and within a half a day of arriving, we swiftly realized that we would need a full week to explore the sights on our list. South Dakota was amazing and we packed a lot into our time there – the Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, the National Grasslands Visitor’s Center, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, including the Needles Scenic Drive, visits to Deadwood, Sturgis (home of the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame), Spearfish, Spearfish Canyon, a historic fish hatchery, Devil’s Monument in Wyoming, Rapid City and more. We drove hundreds of miles touring the Black Hills area and loved each and every minute of it.
We left South Dakota and headed toward Montana to avoid heavy snow forecast for Wyoming on our way to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks. We were lucky to avoid snow along the route but not so lucky when we arrived in West Yellowstone – the next several days were characterized by snow, below freezing temps, lots of road closures within the park and much larger-than-we-expected crowds. We have a fair amount of flexibility to come, go or stay longer or shorter than people constrained by airline tickets or school vacation schedules but still, we cannot just stick around a place indefinitely, hoping that roads will open or crowds will diminish. And so, like everyone else in similar situations, you just roll with it.
Our drive through Yellowstone to the south entrance to visit Grand Teton when the road finally opened was enhanced by an amazing audio tour on an app called Just Ahead that we learned about while in Yellowstone. The app allows one to download a guide to a single park or to subscribe for year to access guides for additional parks. Regrettably, when we downloaded the Yellowstone guide, we were unaware that the south entrance road had reopened toward Grand Teton (even though we were monitoring road closures on the Park’s telephone info line) and when we entered Grand Teton, we were unable to load Teton’s guide due to cell service. We LOVED the Just Ahead audio tour and took advantage of many suggested stops along our route. Sadly, we didn’t know about Just Ahead until after we visited many of the parks for which audio guides were available but we have the app now, complete with yearly subscription, ready for audio tours of parks that we will visit when we return to the lower 48 from Alaska.
At a later date, we may attempt to list the places and routes along our travels that were our favorites. While it is premature to do so at this time, we can confidently report to you that among the places we will highly recommend are western South Dakota/Black Hills area and the drive from Yellowstone to Helena, MT along what we later learned was called the Paradise Valley (287 to 69 to 15 along the Madison River). The name says it all.
Here’s hoping for drives ahead as memorable as Paradise Valley – it proved that all roads along rivers and mountains are not just other hoodoos. (See previous bootsandcoffee.com blog post for explanation about hoodoo reference.)
The Nosy Stuff
Perhaps because our Facebook postings take the form of mini travelogues, filled with photos and videos but mostly devoid of personal reflections, we realized that this blog has become the primary (written) way for us to share our more inward thoughts about our life on the road and just how we are doing now that we have nearly 5 months (and 20,000 or so miles) under our (fan) belts.
Let us start by saying that we are good – individually and together. Let us follow by saying that the trip has had its challenges. All things considered, the challenges have been relatively minor – weather obstacles, regularly reaching our roaming data limits WAY before the end of our cell phone billing cycles, repairs needed for Wolfie’s roof and tire are just a few examples. We have learned that researching campgrounds along the road has taken a fair amount of time and energy and that the differences between campgrounds in state parks are interestingly startling. For instance, prior to reaching Colorado, nearly every state park visited had campsites for RVs with electric and water. From Colorado north, state park campsites rarely (if ever) supply water at the site – probably because state parks do not want to deal with the possibility of maintaining water pipes after long winters with many below freezing days. In Montana, few parks with RV sites provide a dump station for black or gray water – nearly unheard of in other state parks where we have stayed where dump stations are the norm. In some state parks, reservations must be made 2 or 3 days in advance and in others, one can reserve online on the day of arrival. Some parks have fees for residents and different fees for nonresidents; some states require daily entrance fees to be paid in addition to campsite fees (which, believe me, can really add up). Some states sell yearly park passes that eliminate the daily entrance fees. In short, it takes a lot of reading fine print to ensure that one is aware of the total cost for a campground stay and what amenities exist. (Here, in Helena, we are in a lovely lakeside campsite at Black Sandy State Park where we have electric at the site but no water and there is a dump station within the campground. There are restrooms with flush – versus vault toilets – but no showers anywhere in the campground. The nonresident campsite fee includes the daily entrance fee but we had to read the fee schedule at least 3 times before we figured it out. We arrived early enough to secure a first-come-first-served site, thankfully, because we missed the 3 days in advance online reservation window. Get the picture?)
All of this is to illustrate that it’s not so easy being foot loose and fancy free when it comes to securing a safe, affordable and comfortable place to place Wolfie for a night or so. On the other hand, it would have been completely exhausting to have made advance reservations for all of the myriad places we have stayed within the past 5 months to say nothing of how pressured we would have felt by such a tight and inflexible schedule and how little flexibility it would have afforded us. Good or bad aside, it has been a challenge to do this research along the way. And we think that it might get worse – in that we are already discovering that some Canadian campgrounds are not even reservable until the middle of June or later!
While we have met a large number of people, most of our encounters with others have been relatively brief – imagine our life as being one really long cocktail party filled with “camper small talk.” The “what’s your major” for us has morphed into a story of our journey and how we started in a tent before we acquired Wolfie, blah, blah, blah. It is a fun and interesting story to tell and we have developed story-telling skills that allow for a Mutt-and-Jeff routine and fellow campers are filled with interest and often provide us with great ideas and hints about things to see and routes to take, to say nothing of the valuable guidance we have received on maintaining Wolfie. Still, there are times we long for a good debate about current events, or about great movies seen or books read. Recent political events have left us with no lack of great articles to read and fascinating news to absorb as we travel but the 24 hour news programming gets old when we are on the second or third repetition of the same story even if it is a different newscaster/host and at times, listening to the news can be so disheartening and distracts from the beauty all around us.
There have been constant challenges with cell signals, Wi-Fi, TV stations and technology in general. We have hinted at this before and could write a book on how many issues we have confronted and our (mostly) botched solutions. In short, we have found nothing that consistently addresses our interests in having cell signals, adequate Wi-Fi and some access to TV – whether for news or entertainment. Most of the time, we have at least 1 of these (cell or Wi-Fi or TV) and sometimes we have none. At one point, we “voted” for choosing Wi-Fi over TV/cable when we researched campgrounds, believing that we could always stream news or Netflix, etc. We pretty quickly realized that nearly all campground-supplied Wi-Fi was not only inadequate for streaming purposes, it was barely adequate for email or web browsing/research. We have left a campground on more than one occasion to travel to Starbucks, McDonald’s or something similar just to use the Wi-Fi (such as we are doing at this moment). We have had issues with roaming data limits (even though our Sprint and T-Mobile plans have “unlimited” data – hah, a story for another day) but, fortunately no problems with our phones once we crossed the Canadian borders on either Sprint or T-Mobile. The data has been important not because we are unable to sit quietly and simply read a book or magazine, but to navigate, research, download books, news articles and the like. So far, we can mostly locate Wi-Fi in town and try to do what we need to do from those locations. It’s likely to get worse as we continue toward Alaska but the trade off is that our coping skills continue to improve.
One of the most difficult issues has been to embrace Wolfie and the trip as our way of life rather than one extended vacation. This little <100 square foot trailer is our home and it’s been a challenge to figure out how to make our life on the road comfortable at times. We are grateful for the inside kitchen but challenged by the limitations of its tiny space, tiny fridge, tiny sink and lack of oven. Our countertop measures about 2’x2’ and the workspace doubles as dish drainer where our tiny coffee maker and small 3 pot herb garden also resides. The dinette banquette that faces the TV is small and while we can both cram our butts there for short intervals, it is not accommodating for very long. It took a while to get comfy with Wolfie and living in this way – getting the storage cabinets arranged in a way that didn’t require removing everything to get to the spices, learning how to make the bed, figuring out how to keep sufficient pantry items on hand to allow for varied dinners . . .
It is worth noting that we have truly felt comfortable and have not perceived any real discomfort due to race or religion or the inter-ness of our mixed status as a couple. As we enter a new town or city, we usually read about the place, its history and its demographics. As we move westward, we have moved into areas with less racial and religious diversity but the lack of diversity has not signaled any lack of civility, cordiality and friendliness. If anything, it has improved. Universally, we have appreciated the friendly way we have been treated everywhere we have been.
Even with all of this, we can happily report that we are enjoying each other as much as we thought we would and have not tired of having each other as our primary companion. The trip has solidified so many of the things that we shared before we left and improved upon our collaboration in many new ways. And we are happy to also to report that naturally, without a great deal of conscientious work, we have started living more in the moment. The “can’t wait until” has been replaced, more often as not by “should we stay here longer.” Each day, there is more and more comfort in seeing what is in front of our eyes rather than what lies ahead in our journey.
Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
When we last wrote, more than a month ago, we were writing about a journey of 2 months in the making and here we are, double that time on the road. Much has happened since we wrote on March 2, which was just after leaving New Orleans and Mardi Gras. In the intervening time, we have traveled from Louisiana to Texas to New Mexico to Arizona to Utah and to Grand Junction, Colorado where we are resting as of this writing. Not only have we added 5 states to our US Sticker Map but we have added a lot of miles, learning, self knowledge and joy. We have also had some real adjustments to life on the road and we will share those later when our thoughts are more organized.
Sometime between Louisiana and Colorado, we realized we had put more than 10,000 miles on Gertie since leaving Maryland on December 26, 2016. Had we used those 10,000 miles to drive straight from Maryland to Alaska and then from Alaska to Panama, we would be in Panama by now. Within those 10,000 miles (which are really 14,000+ at this time), we have stayed in a LOT of campgrounds in a LOT of places, and so on.
Since we were amused and somewhat surprised by some of what we realized about the magnitude of this undertaking, we wonder whether, you, too, will be amused and somewhat amazed by some of what we subsequently cataloged about this trip. So, here goes:
Total Number of miles driven: 14,000+ miles
Total Number of States Entered: 15
Total Number of Places Stayed/Accommodations: 48 (5 Hiltons, 16 private homes/campgrounds, 5 City/County campgrounds, 17 State campgrounds, 5 federal campgrounds)
Number of oil changes on the trip (not counting one done pre-trip): 3
Number of observed snow falls: 3
Number of crossings into Mexico: 2
Favorite new purchases along the trip (in no particular order):
Portable storage tank (dubbed the Honey Pot by a fellow traveler)
Digital TV antenna (reliably finds local channels for news and weather)
Small electric coffee pot (gave ours away pretrip and bought another one to avoid the daily challenge of cleaning coffee grounds from the French press)
Zero gravity lounge chairs
New mattress for Wolfie
Number of National Parks visited so far (not counting National Monuments or Presidential Libraries): Great Smoky, Mammoth Cave, Everglades, Big Bend, Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef and Arches
Lowest gas price paid: $1.75 (Texas or Louisiana)
Highest gas price: $2.89 in Big Bend National Park and $4.79 just north of Moab, UT where the price didn’t display until Roque started to pump the gas (!)
Highest elevation with Gertie alone: 9100′ at Rainbow Point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Highest elevation with Gertie and Wolfie: 9612′ on Utah 12 en route to Torrey, UT
Number of time changes: 5 (2 time zones and 3 changes to and from Daylight savings time)
Number of post cards sent to grandchildren: 40+
Number of quarters used for laundry: approximately 270
Most challenging road: Utah RT 12 between Bryce Canyon National Park/Kodachrome Basin State Park and Torrey, UT (next to Capital Reef National Park). At points, the road traveled on top of a mountain ridge with drop offs in both direction
Highest temperature: 98 in Big Bend
Lowest temperature: 18 in Santa Fe
Holidays celebrated (not counting federal holidays such as MLK’s birthday and President’s Day): New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Sharon’s birthday, Passover and Easter
Number of ice cream scoops: 0
Number of bagels consumed after leaving Florida: 2
Best grocery stores visited: H-E-B and Whole Foods in Austin; City Market and Sprouts in Grand Junction, CO
Number of bottles of body wash used: 2
Number of times we have eaten sushi: 0
Number of stickers on Gertie: 33
Number of hiking boot laces replaced: 4 (2 pair total)
Number of times shopped at Walmart: more than once
Note about shopping at Walmart: We prefer to shop local and to avoid Walmart. Despite this preference, there have been times when we literally had no choice BUT to shop at Walmart. Whether Walmart has driven out the local Mom-and-Pop’s or whether Walmart entered markets where no other competition exists, alas, there are times when they are the only game in town . . .
What the Heck is a Hoodoo (and why it matters)
After we departed Dallas on the road toward Big Bend National Park, we entered a series of landscapes that were mostly characterized as dusty, arid, scrubby, and rocky. Throughout southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, there were huge variations on this theme but the basic geology, at least to these untrained eyes, remained the same. Our visits to the various state and national parks in these states have taught us about the events that occurred millions and millions of years ago to the land that became the Colorado Plateau – land that is located in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. The Colorado Plateau is the home of the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks and numerous other monuments, state parks and various other protected land within these states. Through collision, folding, rising and erosion, the Colorado Plateau not only produced these park lands but the broad range of geological structures that include canyons, arches, walls and hoodoos.
“A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney or earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an ariddrainage basin or badland.” Wikipedia Definition of Hoodoo. Like most of you, we had never heard the term before we entered Arizona and Utah – at least with reference to rock structures. By the time we entered Colorado, however, we could spot a hoodoo miles away and after weeks of exposure to the majesty of some of this country’s most dramatic and beautiful landforms, we may have become a little blasé about these magnificent scenes. Of course, we have continued to take photo after photo (many of them posted and shared on our Facebook Boots and Coffee page if you are interested) and yet, we caught ourselves recently remarking, as we drove along the Colorado River scenic drive between Grand Junction and Parachute, CO, “Oh. It’s just another hoodoo.”
Whether the cataloging of “events” and “stats” above is remarkable or not, it is just our life on this journey. Many people who we have met along the road are enthralled/amazed/excited by or perhaps even wary of us when we share our plans for this trip. Many of our family members and friends reacted similarly as they heard of our plans. To us, however, these “stats” and more are just how we are living. It’s just another hoodoo to us.
Unbelievably, two months have now passed since we set out with Gertie packed to the gills for the beginning of our trip. As we wrote about earlier, the excess weight in gear packed into Gertie was solved by renting and hauling a UHaul for the first couple of weeks, storing the items in Florida in a small storage unit and solved again when we returned to Deerfield Beach to retrieve the stowed belongings after we acquired our new camper, Wolfie. On one hand, it feels like forever since we were working in our jobs and preparing to leave; on the other hand, it feels new as can be – like an extended vacation. Still, in the back of our brains, we feel that we kind of know that it’s not a vacation and it’s our new life and with every day, this realization brings a contented smile.
We set out with a rough itinerary of places we wanted to see and a timeline with only a few fixed dates: New Orleans for Mardi Gras and summer to travel through the Canadian Rockies into Alaska. Otherwise, we purposely eschewed making advance reservations anywhere, which we found to be somewhat challenging while in Florida for the 6 weeks or so preceding our scheduled arrival in New Orleans due to the abundance of RVers and other campers taking advantage of wintering in Florida. While making reservations for campsites – tent or trailer – in Florida proved time-consuming and while we could not always stay in a particular location or stay at a campground as long as we may have wanted under ideal circumstances, making arrangements on the fly has its blessings. We ended up seeing parts of the country that we may not have otherwise selected and some of those have been among the most beautiful and surprisingly enjoyable and have met people we might have missed.
Life with Wolfie
Life with Wolfie, our trailer home for the past month, is good. In him, we have all that we need and love the convenience of cooking without digging through the “bear box” housing pantry items, or without hunting for the spices within the camp kitchen as it is now all neatly housed within organized (mostly) cabinets in the trailer. With Wolfie, packing up camp and moving onward is a snap and we have that routine pretty much down pat. Having an indoor bathroom is dreamy and being able to sit at the dinette to eat or work at the computer is easy and comfy. We have places for our clothes, and our “office” equipment as well as our toiletries and sundry items that are accessible and don’t require digging through boxes to retrieve.
Technology needs remain a work in progress as cell signals and campground wifi (when it exists) can be quite spotty but we have learned new tricks to overcome these deficiencies when they arise (at least, thus far). We previously added a $30 digital antenna to our gear which often will allow for watching local network TV. We added an Apple AV cable that allows for our iPhones or iPads to connect to the TV if we have downloaded Netflix shows or movies in advance or if we have service strong enough to stream from an app. The Apple TV, which we believed we would be able to use by connecting it to the T-Mobile data on Roque’s iPad, has proven to be largely useless. The data signal on the iPad, which is sufficient often to permit internet browsing, does not appear to be strong enough to support streaming on the Apple TV. And when our cell phone signals are strong enough to support streaming, if the Apple TV is using TMobile data, we cannot stream to the Apple through AirPlay since both devices (Apple TV and phone or iPad) need to be using the same data stream. The AV cable solved the problem by taking the Apple TV out of the equation. Now, it mostly collects dust and awaits its final home in Panama.
There are many ongoing adaptations still, though. We wrote briefly of the limit of our gray and black water tanks in Wolfie and found it essential to add a portable waste storage tank to our gear, which allows us to empty the tanks on an as-needed basis to bring to the dump station, freeing up the tanks while we are stationary for more than a couple of days. The alternative, for those of you not familiar with the more unsavory aspects of life in a camper, would require hooking up Wolfie every couple of days just to tow him to the dump station. The portable tank can be towed (I kid you not) behind the truck for emptying at the dump station, leaving Wolfie happily in his cradle of wheel chocks and stabilizers. It’s not the most pleasant of household chores to bring the portable tank to the dump station but it is a small price to pay for staying put for a longer period and for the convenience of indoor plumbing.
And while we adore having a queen size bed without the obstacle of cot frames separating us while we sleep, we have realized that our trailer mattress is a piece of crap- hard as a rock and shorter than the conventional queen size mattress. Its short stature is not much of a problem for me but Roque isn’t as vertically challenged as I am and while not an extremely tall man, finds that his feet stick off the end of the mattress at night.
We discovered, quite by accident, that the crappy mattress dilemma is universal. While camping on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, where we took Wolfie to stay while we headed into Mardi Gras, we were included by our neighboring campers in a day /night of beach going and campfire relaxing. With these 3 families the subject of the mattress arose and much to our surprise, we learned that they ALL hated their mattresses. So, it seems that camper manufacturers install the most basic of mattresses in campers and slowly but surely, owners learn that they need to replace their mattresses with other ones IF they want to get a good night’s sleep.
Armed with this information and the new-found knowledge of not being alone in this island of misfit mattresses, we started to research replacement RV mattresses and happily learned (from website comments) that RVers – from high-end Class A motor homes to pop up tent campers – often need to commit to replacing their mattresses. Through the internet, we also learned that the mattress we have is a “queen short,” explaining the feet-off-the-end problem that Roque is experiencing. (It is interesting to note that RV dealers proudly boast of queen size beds in RVs without disclosing that while they are queen size in width, they are Sharon-sized in terms of length!).
We were also happy to learn that replacing the mattress with a gel foam mattress for Wolfie will not cost and arm and a leg and NOTHING like a conventional mattress for a conventional home. The obstacle that looms ahead in this purchase, however, is being somewhere where the new mattress can be shipped to us or shipped to a store for pick up. When one lives on the road with a snail mail address in another state (Florida in our case), one cannot simply do the simple Amazon-thing since acceptance of delivery of something as large as a mattress – even one that is shipped vacuum sealed for later “inflating” when the package is opened — is not something we want to impose on a relative or friend in an upcoming state (as we have with smaller items). This means postponing the purchase and timing it so that it can be delivered when we are WITH the friends or relatives. Until then, the sleep will just have to suffer and we will just have to remind ourselves that hard as it is, the mattress is an improvement over the two cots pushed together.
So, lest you think that we are sitting fat and happy in the comfort of our new home on wheels, we are still modifying and adjusting and I suspect that our future posts will have subjects similar to this one. Yes, there are moments when we wish that the purchasing of stuff would end but mostly the moments are filled with appreciation for the quiet and peace of our life on the road. There is always a new path to walk and new animals to see. There are bike routes to try and local foods to explore. There are people to meet and internet radio stations to stream through the Bluetooth to the outside sitting area beneath our retractable awning while we enjoy our books, newspapers, Scrabble, Backgammon and Chess games or as background music to our conversations about where to explore today. There are beaches where we sun and nap and new grocery stores to explore when we shop for the days’ meals. We have found that we can be as solitary or as social as we please and that suits us beautifully, as does each other’s company, which never fails to complete us (still). Life is good.
Finding Our Stride
One of the greatest discoveries so far has been that we CAN slow down, so much, in fact, that we cut our time in New Orleans short and decided to return to Wolfie a day earlier than planned following Mardi Gras. Entering New Orleans on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Fat Tuesday), turned out to be perfect timing as we were able to watch Monday’s Proteus and Orpheus Krewe parades as well as participating in Zulu’s Lundi Gras festival on the waterfront near the French Quarter. The parades were spectacular affairs and each Krewe brings a different spectacle to the streets. On Mardi Gras, the parades began at 8 am and we saw the “follows” floats from smaller Krewes still rolling down St. Charles Avenue onto Canal Street as late as 5 pm! Many stay at their spots for all of these hours; we spent time wandering different streets, observing the differences in the crowds from one location to another. Having amassed huge quantities of Mardi Gras beads at a parade in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on the Friday before Mardi Gras, we made little effort to collect new ones in New Orleans and were fascinated by the BAGS of beads and other “throws” collected by parade attendees (what do they DO with all that stuff after the parades???). Still, we were thrilled when Roque caught beads thrown by hometown boy Harry Connick, Jr. from his float in the Krewe of Orpheus parade and when Roque caught a prized hand painted coconut from the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras, which coconut now graces our dining room table in a plastic Proteus cup also one-handed by Roque.
While in New Orleans, we dined at Mother’s for breakfast (The Katz’s — of sorts – of New Orleans), returned to Cochon for dinner (as memorable as our visit there nearly 4 years ago) and visited Compère Lapin which may have been the highlight of our trip, as the cuisine, a fusion of West Indian/Cajun/Italian prepared by a classically trained (French tradition) female chef from St. Lucia, was fresh, beautiful and so flavorful that had we had larger appetites, we would have tried everything on the menu. Her menu expresses the following philosophy, which I found perfectly matched our meal : ” Meals aren’t about trends, shock value, or opulence. Meals are about moments, memories and those who surround you at your table. We believe in the complexity of simplicity, and the power of pure flavors. Our histories, vast and varied, deserve to be memorialized and romanticized by dishes that at once remind us of home and transport us to somewhere new.” These restaurants were wonderful treats and a lovely departure from cooking and we were thrilled with these choices although in New Orleans, we likely could have tried others with the same results as few cities honor food (or do it as well) as does New Orleans.
The two days and nights in New Orleans, through this season of revelry, were enough for us and we both decided – independent of one another – that we wanted to leave the city to return to the campground. We have nested in Wolfie completely and have added touches that make it feel like home. Our Zulu coconut. Our Cynthia-made, Strip Club endorsed quilt. Our yoga mat as floor runner. Our zero gravity outdoor lounge chairs. These and more make Wolfie our home and we are loving it.
We now know that moving along the road with Wolfie should be done in smaller spurts, and unlike our last cross-country trip where we drove upwards of 8-10 hours at times, we are now trying to travel no more than 4 hours on a travel day. While slower in pace, we are in no hurry to exhaust ourselves or to push onward when being here — wherever here is – is bound to bring more beauty, fresh discoveries, and new friends. Our next stops — Lake Charles, LA, Galveston Island, TX, Houston and then Dallas – lie ahead with boudin, cracklin’ and crawfish and who knows what else to be sampled. Whatever lies ahead, we look forward to it and will share it later with you.
Krewe of Orpheus float
Krewe of Zulu Float
Krewe of Proteus Float
Krewe of Proteus float
French Quarter craziness
Nipple Glitter “model”
Be Safe Y’All
We were told by our camping neighbors here at Fontainbleau State Park to “be safe” when we left to go to Mardi Gras. We swiftly learned that the “be safe” admonishment was not to be taken literally as I was able to confirm with our hotel desk clerk that folk from Louisiana ALL say “be safe” in the way that we might say “see you later.” So this blog will close with well wishes to you and hopes that y’all will be safe.
Mississippi Gulf Coast
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens Campground, Pensacola
Sunset over Lake Ponchartrain, Fontainbleau State Park
Fontainbleau State Park, Mandeville, LA
Fontainbleau State Park, Mandeville, LA
Wedding Prep at Fontainbleau State Park, Mandeville, LA
Throughout our years of planning for this road trip, we had considered many ways to camp including whether to buy some sort of camper. Most of the folks traveling the Pan American highway have some sort of self contained camper, whether factory or homemade. We opted for the truck and tent for many different reasons. We love tent camping and one night, when at the Flamingo campground in Everglades National Park, at the far southwest tip of Florida (and 38 miles from the visitor center), we slept with the tent rain flap open, allowing for an amazing view of the stars from our cots. Since we were so far away from light pollution, the sky was spectacular and combined with the night sounds of insects and frogs, I was filled with a sense of peace and well being that made it clear why I love to camp in a tent — other than a thin piece of nylon separating us from the outdoors, we were as close to being a PART of the outdoors as we could be without sleeping outside (not a viable prospect given the mosquitos there!).
It was kind of a source of pride, at least for me, to think that we could tent camp throughout this trip, at least in the US and Canada, but we met some people from Alaska and Oregon while in the Everglades, who forewarned of the possibility of being prevented from accessing some national park campgrounds without a hardsided camper due to wildlife concerns. Despite our efforts to research this online, we had been unable to find out much about tent camping limitations. It was a really horrifying thought to consider arriving somewhere – such as Yellowstone or Glacier or Denali- only to be told that they would not allow us to tent camp there. Combining that with many other considerations such as basic creature comforts like having an inside toilet and real bed, we again started to research camper trailers.
Kismet struck when we arrived in the Ft Myers area. We thought that if we decided to buy one, it made sense for us to do it in Florida so we could ensure having it registered in our new home state. In the middle of our research into various small trailer campers, we learned there was an RV show in Ft Myers which we thought would give us a chance to look at many makes and models and to see many of the ones we had already researched online, saving us the hassle of going from dealer to dealer to see a variety of models.
We were only interested in a smallish trailer but felt that it made no sense to get anything unless it had a real bed and “full” bath including toilet and shower. I was intrigued by the little “pod” trailers as well as “teardrop” ones but they were just too small and impractical as most have just inside beds (and outside kitchens which are clever but we already have a full outside kitchen set up) so we had to go larger than a pod. We jointly liked one model much better than all the others because it had an”walk around” queen bed (meaning that one person doesn’t have to climb over the other to get in or out of bed) and a full bath. In the one we selected – the Forest River Cherokee Wolf Pup 16 FQ (photos of similar models and floor plan of our model here: http://www.forestriverinc.com/brochures/2017/2017wolfpupbrochure.pdf), we have tiny tub (big enough for a grandchild) with a shower, toilet and even a sink with vanity. So within the whopping 16′ of trailer, we have a walkaround queen bed, full bath, tiny dinette and kitchen (stove, fridge, sink and microwave). We also have ac and heat. The ac requires being at a campsite with electricity but the heat runs on propane.
All of this means than we now have a tiny camper that not only allows for a comfortable lifestyle when at a campsite but will also allow us to boondock (camping without electricity or water at a site) if we find ourselves in remote areas where we cannot find a “real” campground or hotel room, which I anticipate will be the case in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska.
Additionally, the storage space and cargo capacity of the trailer permitted us to return to Deerfield Beach for the stuff we had to put in a storage facility because it was too heavy to carry in the truck, which would save us the storage fees as well as have the gear we wanted for starting our life in Panama. And we also considered that once we get to Panama, having the trailer means that we won’t feel quite so pressured to find a rental home since we will have a place to sleep and we may ultimately be able to rent out the trailer as an AirBnB option like a casita on the property.
The downside is that towing a trailer is more difficult than just driving a truck and reduces our fuel economy. But it’s a fairly simple process to set up and break down the trailer when we are in a campsite and we unhook the truck for the duration of our stay and then hop into the truck or onto our bikes while the trailer stays put. We have reduced the camp set up and break down time to a third of what it took to set up our tent and screen tent with kitchen, cots, clothes and other necessaries.
Another downside of having a small trailer is the small holding tanks (to say nothing of learning the “art” of emptying out the holding tanks). We have learned that we are likely to exceed our tanks’ holding capacity when we stay at one campsite longer than a couple of nights and that means that we have to find a way to get to a dump station in the park midway through our stay. If this requires hooking up and moving the trailer, it’s rather self defeating when the beauty of staying put for longer than a couple of days requires moving just to dump the tanks. Luckily, there are solutions for this dilemma: portable tanks that allow for us to empty excess gray and black water and haul it in this wheelie-device to the dump station. So, it’s likely that we will be making a purchase of one of these today.
For any of you who are experienced RVrs, you already know that locating campgrounds with “full” hookups is the optimal choice; we have chosen to avoid RV parks for several reasons and thus, “full” hookups (water, electric and sewer at the site) are less frequently available and snatched up quickly when they exist. Unlike my experience camping in Maryland, albeit in tents, we were delighted to learn that all Florida state park campsites provide electric and water hook ups, which were convenient as heck when in a tent and fairly essential – even if not critical – in a trailer. The same appears to be true in many other state parks and the ones we reserved in Mississippi and Louisiana for the end of this month, will provide electricity and water (and in Mississippi, sewer as well). Within federal lands, electric sites are harder to come by and few, if any, have full hookups. Luckily, we located a resource on the internet that provides really comprehensive information about state campgrounds and their facilities within their state park system.
There is something of an art to researching campgrounds. No two are alike, even within a statewide system. (Further, no two sites are alike and many Florida state park sites vary tremendously in terms of size.) Since we are trying to stay on public lands, we have located city, county, state and various federal campgrounds and in our 12 campgrounds so far, have stayed on county, state and federal lands Alas, there is not one reservation system for all. Some states use reserveamerica.com; most federal lands allow for reservations on recreation.gov. Both of these omit county campgrounds (at least so far in our travels). Finding county campgrounds requires knowing the county where you are headed (oy! yet ANOTHER open tab in my browser!). Some parks allow reservations online as well as “first-come-first-served” walk ins. Sometimes, the online reservation systems shows no available sites but a phone call to the park results in victory!
Another drawback to the online reservation systems is locating a “good” site. When we were in a tent, proximity to the bathhouse was a priority. And while that is no longer as critical while in a trailer, other pieces of information rise to the top of the list: Size. Drive in versus back in. Width (helpful when backing in). Length. Location within the campground (i.e., not next to dump sites, electrical transformers, trees/hedges for privacy, etc.). It’s helpful to look at the campground map to try to determine better spots but it’s not always easy to locate where the dumpsters are, for example, to avoid living next to them. Perhaps this explains why experienced RVrs often return to the same campgrounds year after year, armed with information on their preferred campsite location. If this sounds a bit daunting, you are right – at times, it makes me feel like my head is about to explode with all of the mental checklists about what park and site to choose. So far, however, we have been delighted with pretty much every campground we have selected and often have benefitted from having to move from site to site when reservations do not allow for consecutive night stays on the same site.
We have also learned that there are websites for boondocking locations (!) that include the somewhat famous “camping in a Walmart parking lot,” (sometimes allowed but not always), truck stops, rest areas and even on people’s private land! There are also little known campgrounds located in Florida’s Water Management Districts and US National Forests that are managed by the USDA and not the Park Service. I’m fairly sure that there are books on this subject and perhaps compendia on the internet but I’ve not located them (yet). And before I forget, never assume that ALL US National Parks are reservable on recreation.gov: I learned a couple of weeks ago that Denali (and perhaps others) use a completely separate reservation system run by a concessionaire! reservedenali.com. Bottom line: look, read, study, research and do it all over again to cover all bases.
Despite the mind bending work of researching and reserving a good campsite, the rewards are many, especially when you arrive at a park and learn that YOUR campsite is waterfront with its own private beach, as is the one we write from today. Hard to beat and well worth the work!
It’s been a little more than a week since we picked up our trailer, now dubbed “Wolfie,” and we have no regrets. Earlier this week, we awoke to 38 degree weather and we were able to put on the heat to get the chill out of the trailer even though we slept without it and with the windows open. We now have 2 fridges (one in the trailer which runs on propane while in the road and one in the back of the truck which runs off our solar panel and solar generator) and were able to empty out the backseat of the truck so we can now truly have passengers should people take us up in our offers to join us for a portion of the trip. If and when this happens, Roque and I will sleep in the tent and leave the trailer for any guests. (THIS MEANS YOU). We have an inside kitchen and one that we can set up outside. We have all of our clothes now in the storage holds of the trailer which may help when we get invited to some black tie event (unlikely) or wedding (possible?). We have a stereo system inside complete with DVD player connected to a wall mounted TV and while cable or satellite TV stations are unavailable, we have, on more than one occasion, had data or wifi connections decent enough to allow for streaming on our iPads or computers, and sometimes through the TV! We still wake to the sounds of the birds and often early enough to see the sun rise, always from the comfort of our own campsite. And waking in the middle of the night to use the restroom no longer involves dressing, locating a flashlight and heading off to a bathhouse.
The adjustments continue, as do the purchases for stuff. But we have no complaints as life is so good (as the photos demonstrate):
A lot has happened since the beginning of our road trip on December 26 and the passage of time since the last post, while not planned, has given us time for reflection on our constant learning curve over these past 3 weeks. Had we posted the earlier draft of this blog post, it would have been filled with details of our departure and the packing and loading of the truck/rig (Gertie, for short). This now seems like a distant memory, worthy of a mention but not of an entire post. The learning curve has been constant and reminds us that this trip will teach us a great deal about many things, not the least of which is how to NOT over-react and how time provides the gift of calm reflection.
To Pack or Not To Pack
When we were organizing our belongings for the trip, we KNEW that we were going to leave on the trip with Gertie looking like she was on the set of the Beverly Hillbillies with items loaded inside the cab, the truck cap, the roof and a hitch carrier on the back. We laughed about how we would look but patted ourselves on the back about how much stuff we would be able to transport: fridge and solar power system within the cab, camping gear on top with the bikes, emergency equipment and tools on the hitch carrier and loads of long term items, designed to start our life in Panama, stored within the truck cap (the bed of the truck within the cap).
Truck packed, we departed on December 26 and headed west toward the first of our planned stops. We were no more than an hour into our drive when we realized that even after 2 years of trip planning, we missed the obvious: did we load Gertie beyond her payload weight limits? OMG – what were we thinking when we believed we could transport hundreds of pounds of belongings, secured in huge 55 gallon storage boxes, all the way from DC to Panama, when we wouldn’t even USE them for years to come??? In the 3 boxes were kitchen items (Kitchenaid mixer, Cuisinart, pots and pans and more), clothes (intended for use in our new home but not along the road), and general household items (TV, stereo equipment, tools, etc.). The boxes were so heavy that to load one on top of the other in Gertie, we had to use a piece of plywood as a ramp to slide on atop the other. (Later, we stopped to weigh Gertie at a certified scale at a truck stop and learned that we were nearly 50% over our payload weight rating).Panic set in and we immediately considered options such as stopping and returning to Baltimore to store these boxes for future shipping (rejected due to the sheer hassle of unloading and carrying/schlepping so many pounds of stuff to the basement) and shipping these boxes to friends in Mexico or Panama to accept them in our absence (rejected for multiple reasons). When emotions calmed and we (more “I” than “we”) were able to think more rationally, we resolved to rent a UHaul trailer to transport the boxes to Florida (since Gertie’s towing capacity greatly exceeds her payload limits) where we would rent a small storage unit to warehouse the belongings for future shipping to Panama.
The immediate solution had its downsides – schlepping a trailer up and down the mountainous roads in the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounds definitely affected our fuel consumption and hauling a trailer sure limits parking pretty much everywhere — but it did resolve the weight issue and we found a temporary solution to the “scheppability”problem by dropping the trailer at each campground along the route so we could travel locally freed of the additional appendage (thanks to the purchase of a bottle jack which allowed us to raise the trailer off the hitch when we were stationary). Whew.
Logistics solved, we traveled westward through stops in Louisville, Owensboro and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Nashville, Chattanooga and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Great Smoky National Park and Asheville, North Carolina, Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga and then into St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral and Deerfield Beach in rapid succession at a pace that seemed like we were still traveling on a vacation with a finite beginning and end dates as compared to a pace that being retired should permit. The problem was not our itinerary, which was intentionally open-ended in terms of dates and times, but mindset: learning to slow down was clearly going to be as much of a challenge as originally anticipated. (Breathe, Sharon, breathe!).
In fairness to my hypercritical view of myself, the first week or so of the trip took us through locations where the weather would not allow us to camp so we were staying in hotels. Anxious to start our camping and avoid the unnecessary sterility of hotel stops, we were delighted when we arrived in Charleston, SC to weather that was nice enough to allow us to set up camp. Without a fixed itinerary, we were making campground reservations on the fly as we approached our next stops and in SC and Georgia, we were extremely lucky in locating wonderful campgrounds that provided beautiful sites, equipped with electricity and water at each camp site (James Island Country Park in Charleston, SC and Skidaway Island State Park near Savannah, GA). By the time we reserved our campsite in St. Augustine (Anastasia State Park), we were lucky to find one night’s availability but nothing longer so after joining (new) friends, Diana and Jack Rawle for dinner (Diana and Jack’s son, Andrew, was Sophie’s boyfriend at Drexel and following her passing, were great emotional support to me, via email, and we were excited to meet them face-to-face and thank them for their years of support and long-distance support) and walking in historic St. Augustine, we headed out for Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Center. The incredible KSC more than compensated for the shantytown feel of our campground in Titusville, FL (Mannatee Hammock County Park) so we were not unhappy to leave for our breakfast with DC-friend, Janet Samuelson, before heading south to Deerfield Beach and our home for the following 2 weeks at Quiet Waters Park.
Life here at Quiet Waters has been blessedly peaceful and relaxing. This county park’s campground is unlike any we have encountered before as each site is equipped with a platform tent, which is spacious and roomy, where each campsite backs onto ponds that provide water views. The sites are large and well equipped and the campground and bathhouses are well maintained and clean and is conveniently located within easy bike or vehicle access to stores, movie theaters and parents (Phil and Naomi Benzil’s condo is in a community located right across the street from the park). The previous week was filled with “honey do’s” for Phil and Naomi, time spent with family, biking and easy-paced days. This week will include more outings with friends, downtime and an opportunity to continue to practice slowing down.
It hardly feels like 3 weeks have passed since leaving on our trip and yet living in a brick-and-mortar home in DC/Baltimore seems like lifetime ago. While the configuration of every campground is different and requires constant tweaking and adjustments for our nomadic camping life, every set-up and breakdown gets easier as we continue to shed ourselves of gear and add new things that we never thought about over the past 2 years of planning. Some things have been much easier than we expected (among which were establishing our residency in Florida, complete with new drivers’ licenses and vehicle registration, was a breeze and took only several hours on our first day in Deerfield Beach and watching the season premier of “Homeland”) and some have been more challenging (slowing down among them). As of today, though, our spirits are high and our lodgings are perfect and we have retained our senses of humor and abilities to be flexible that have characterized us before and, we hope, into the future.
Some Interesting Unofficial Trip Stats to Date:
Miles driven: 2328
Driving Hours: 83
# of cities/locations visited: 14 (Hurricane, WV, Louisville, KY, Owensboro, KY, Mammoth Cave National Park, Nashville, Chattanooga, TN, Asheville, Great Smoky National Park), Gatlinburg, Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, St. Augustine, FL, Titusville, FL and Deerfield Beach, FL)
# of friends/family Seen/Visited Along the Way: 7
# of PBJ sandwiches consumed for lunch: approximately 50
# of fuel stops: approximately 20 (mostly caused by tugging the trailer behind us and lots of highway travel during first 2 weeks)
# of propane canisters for lantern: 3 (or, at least portions of the 3 we brought with us)
# of items left behind accidentally: 1
# of times we’ve entertained at our campsite: 1 (dinner for Phil and Naomi last week)
# of laundromat stops: 1
# of times I’ve applied any make up along the trip: 2 (mascara only)
# of campgrounds with wifi: all of them (so far)
# of times we have shed/organized/reorganized gear : too many to count
Best along-the-road purchases: digital TV antenna (allows for viewing of local news and network shows when wifi is spotty), bottle jack (invaluable for dropping the UHaul at our campgrounds) and new bike rack (that allows for bikes on the back of Gertie – a plus after our roof-racked bikes picked up more than a little Spanish moss from low hanging trees in SC, Ga and northern Florida)
Best Experiences to date (not counting visits with friends/family): Kennedy Space Center (truly amazing) and the Mohammed Ali Center in Louisville (similarly amazing and awe-inspiring).
Some of the best photos along the way: (see below)
Clockwise from top left:Louisville Slugger Museum, Mammoth Cave historic entrance, Waterfront Park (downtown Charleston), Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Kennedy Space Center, biking with Phil in Deerfield Beach, FL, Quiet Waters Park view from tent, alligator in Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray, FL, Deerfield Beach, FL, view from Site 27, Quiet Waters Park in Deerfield Beach, FL, St. Augustine, Fl house lights, Charleston, SC architecture, downtown Asheville, NC and Great Smoky National Park.